They say that if you only see one temple in Thailand, Doi Suthep is the one to see. Set on a mountain plateau overlooking the city of Chiang Mai, this site is steeped in history and religious significance. It’s also visually stunning. Granted, if you’re in Chiang Mai, odds are good that you stumbled upon at least 3 temples on your morning bottled-water run to the Family Mart. Believe me though, this is a temple that lives up to the hype, scenically, spiritually, and even pop-culturally (the opening to Rambo 3 was filmed on the temple steps).
A 40 Baht songtaew from the city centre takes you up the winding mountain road where Doi Suthep lies 1676 metres above Chiang Mai. The last dozen or so must be trekked on foot, up the 306-step staircase with carved dragon handrails and cool forests on either side. Of course, lazy sightseers can always opt for the 20baht cable car. While the base of the steps is swimming with chatty local vendors peddling paintings, carvings, fruit and Fanta, the temple itself is big enough to allow even the largest crowd of tourists some breathing space.
The history of the temple is a tale of monks, kings, elephants and relics. According to legend, a 14th century monk from Sukhothai found a relic from Buddha, and the Lanna King Keu Naone offered to enshrine the piece. The relic was placed on the back of a white elephant, a sacred symbol. He carried the relic up the mountain, stopped on the site where the temple stands today, and died. The temple was constructed in 1383, with a statue honouring the white elephant inside the front gate.
Your ticket (30 Baht) allows free roam of the temple grounds, though tour guides are plentiful and very helpful. Amidst Buddhist statues, jackfruit trees, and rows of metal bells (rung constantly by curious children, despite the signs warning visitors not to push the bells), the outer area is cool and spaceous, with plenty of gilded doors and ornamental carving to admire.
The bookshop and cafes allow visitors a chance to rest their feet (and cameras). It’s also a chance to take in the views of the evergreen hills and exotic birds which make up the 260 square kilometres of Doi Suthep National Park. On the other side of the entrance gate, a lookout point offers an impressive view of sprawling Chiang Mai and the distant Ping river.
The middle of the temple is the more sacred cloister area, and visitors can remove their shoes and admire the golden Lanna-style Chedi, standing 79 feet high and housing the famous relic of Buddha. Ornametal umbrellas and Buddha statues, all gold, stand around the chedi. The surrounding walls are painted with murals depicting the life of Buddha. If you have the fortune of witnessing this sight on a clear sunny day, it’s easy to get lost in a trance with this shining gold scene. This area is considered to be one of the holiest in Thailand, and makes the trip up the mountain well worthwhile.
Those in search of a spiritual stay in Chiang Mai can book into Doi Suthep’s International Buddhism Centre and stay in the temple itself, finding meditative peace in the natural and spiritual beauty in the temple and its surroundings. The website provides further information at http://www.fivethousandyears.org/
Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.